“A way to fight extremism: Interfaith work”

A way to fight extremism: Interfaith work

Various groups across Arizona focus their efforts on building community, offering cultural connections

BrieAnna J. Frank Arizona Republic USA TODAY NETWORK

Tuesday marked the six-month anniversary of the fatal Jan. 6 Capitol riot, in which a crowd supporting former President Donald Trump stormed the building as Congress met to confirm President Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 election.

Followers of QAnon, a conspiracy theory falsely alleging a “deep state” that supports a child sex-trafficking ring, played prominent roles during the riot and beyond.

More than 500 people have been criminally charged in the insurrection, and a Senate investigation examined law enforcement and military failures and recommended improvements.

Fallout also happened in homes and neighborhoods. As many wonder how to help a country so divided, some community organizations are offering an answer they’ve been working on for years or decades: interfaith and intercultural connection. “I think we underestimate the power of schools, of churches, even businesses that manage our social lives in a nonpo-litical way, in a more personal way,” said decision-science expert Nika Kabiri. “Maybe it’s not their responsibility, but they can engage in certain choices that eliminate that polarization, that bring people together.”

Several organizations that have long been working to connect Arizonans told The Arizona Republic that interfaith work is more vital than ever amid the widespread discord highlighted by the riot.

Much is at stake if the country continues down a path of division instead of unity, they say.

“If we don’t change our behavior, we do not change the way we react as a country, we’re in peril — deep peril,” said the Rev. Larry Fultz of the Arizona Interfaith Movement. “We’ve got to find an alternative way to deal with our anger and with our inability to communicate our differences of opinions.”

Study: Up to a quarter of some Protestant groups agree with QAnon

Despite its debunked theories and fruitless predictions, the QAnon movement has gained many followers around the country.

The nonprofit Public Religion Research Institute in May released a study finding that 15% of Americans agree with the QAnon theory that “the government, media and financial worlds in the U.S. are controlled by a group of Satanworshipping pedophiles who run a global child sex trafficking operation.”

The institute found that some Protestant groups are “more likely than other religious groups” to agree with the statement, with 26% of Hispanic Protestants and 25% of white evangelical Protestants concurring. That number falls to 15% among Black Protestants, the study found.

By comparison, 18% of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 16% of Hispanic Catholics, 11% of white Catholics, 11% of religiously-unaffiliated Americans and 8% of Jewish Americans agreed with the statement.

Additionally, the study found that 15% of Americans agree that “Because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.”

Expert says community and connection can fight extremism, conspiracy

Kabiri, in a June interview with The Arizona Republic, said social media has made conspiracy theories like QAnon “more potent and more visible,” and subsequently, more powerful.

“Conspiracy theories used to be kind of cute, they used to be quaint, a few people on the fringe believe in flat Earth — they never really had any political teeth or social teeth,” she said. “I think what’s different now is you have what most conspiracy theories need to thrive, which is a really great platform to communicate.”

Kabiri said social media has “really effectively” brought together conspiracy theorists who would never have encountered each other otherwise. They share new ideas and support each other, thus strengthening their ties and increasing the movement’s staying power even as outsiders express their concern or friends and family distance themselves.

More than 165,000 Reddit users have flocked to a community, r/QAnonCasualties, to support each other as they lament relationships torn apart by the conspiracy theory. Others have detailed their strained relationships with their parents, spouses and friends to various news outlets around the country.

Many explained their efforts to help their loved ones detach themselves from the conspiracy theory, while others described the point at which they mournfully gave up on the relationship altogether.

While Kabiri said she understands how difficult it can be to navigate those relationships, she added that disengaging from conspiracy theorists can be counterproductive by causing even more “intense polarization,” wherein the person becomes even more tied to their like-minded group.

“There’s maybe a 5% chance on a good day you can turn a QAnon supporter around when you’re in their lives — there’s a 0% chance if you’re not,” she said.

Kabiri said conspiracy theories give people “power over something that feels uncontrollable to them” and on top of that, the social rewards people get from connecting with like-minded people make it “really hard to let go” of their shared ideology.

Kabiri said interfaith movements, by bringing together people of various backgrounds and worldviews, are “exactly the sort of thing” that works when it comes to unifying a fractured country. It can help people headed toward conspiracy theories choose connection and truth instead.

The United Nations has also championed interfaith dialogue as a means of preventing violent extremism, saying that tolerance within a society “demands the active choice to reach out on a basis of mutual understanding and respect, especially where disagreement exists.”

Restoring relationships and trust among individuals, religions and institutions isn’t an easy journey, Kabiri said, but it can be done.

“You’ve got a tough road ahead, but don’t give up — these things take time, these things happen over a long period of time after a lot of work.”

Arizona Faith Network says interfaith community has ‘specific voice in what’s going on’

The Rev. Katie Sexton-Wood, executive director of the Arizona Faith Network, said she believes interfaith movements are “going to be key” in future peace-building.

“The interfaith community has a specific voice in what’s going on and can move that voice for some real changes,” she said.

Sexton-Wood was one of several Christian clergy who marched alongside Jews for Justice in Tucson after Chabad on River synagogue was targeted with a swastika and antisemitic slur in June.

Sexton-Wood said it’s “really important” that individuals, no matter their background, support communities targeted by hate.

“The other side of that, beyond saying, ‘You’re not alone, we condemn this too,’ is … to build those relationships and make our communities stronger so peace and love are the dominant narrative — not hate and fear and violence,” she said.

The Arizona Faith Network started as the Arizona Council of Churches in 1946. The Network has advocated for expanded voting rights and access, criminal legal reform, racial equity and migrant justice through its Social Justice Commission, and joined with other faithbased organizations to set up cooling centers in Valley areas with heat-vulnerable residents. Sexton-Wood said the organization is also working on a “Meet Your Neighbors” program to strengthen bonds within communities. The initiative’s rollout was delayed by the pandemic and is now set for a 2022 launch, she said.

Vasu Bandhu, the network’s faith community coordinator, called interfaith work the “priority in my life.”

Bandhu, who is from Mexico, started volunteering with interfaith organizations there when he was 18 and became a founding member of Fraternidad Interespiritual, an interfaith Latino youth council that’s part of the United Religions Initiative.

He did similar work in El Salvador, telling The Republic his experience in both countries helped shape his understanding of how interfaith movements can unify people even in the midst of great societal strife.

“Extremism and all these bad things that’s happening in faith communities — I realize the importance of interfaith (movements) for peace,” he said.

Bandhu is a shuru in the Sandha Dhammapada, a Zen Buddhist community. Many of his family members are Christian and his husband is Muslim.

He said having different faith perspectives among his family helps him “become more respectful and more open,” adding that he feels most at home in interfaith movements.

“I can feel it is the safest place for me, as Indian, Mexican, LGBT and all my intersectionality,” he said. “It’s the safest place for me, and for my family, my husband, and for many people.”

He said interfaith movements spread awareness about the “beauty of diversity,” calling it their “most powerful” benefit. And he’d like to see them gain more momentum in the United States to help build bridges, which he strongly believes is possible despite the current situation.

“In my experience, I have this hope that it’s possible to live in harmony and diversity, even when we are very divided,” he said.

Jewish Community Relations Council builds interfaith and intercultural ties

Paul Rockower, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Phoenix, said his organization’s mission is to be “the eyes and ears” of any community affected by hate.

That’s why the organization was one of more than two dozen that signed a statement of solidarity with the Asian American community after eight people, most of them Asian women, were killed in three shootings at Atlanta-area spas in March.

“Acts of hate have no place in America,” the letter said. “It is everyone’s duty to call attention to these incidents, and to rally together in pursuit of building a safer society for all.”

The Asian American community responded in kind when two Tucson synagogues, Congregation Chaverim and Chabad on River, were vandalized in May and June.

Tucson Chinese Cultural Center President Peter Chan wrote a letter condemning the acts and affirming that “Hatred has no place in our community, and we abhor it no matter who it targets.”

Rockower said his organization strives to foster authentic relationships, in good times and bad, through events such as a December 2019 concert featuring both Christmas and Hanukkah music at Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church.

“It’s part of our work, understanding that you don’t reach people through actual information — you reach them through emotional connections,” he told The Republic.

He hopes that their model spreads throughout the country, particularly in light of the Capitol riot which saw a man wearing a “Camp Auschwitz” sweatshirt, the largest Nazi concentration and death camp where more than 1 million people were murdered during the Holocaust.

“This is how we get past this stuff, is by building more understanding in the community,” Rockower said, adding that “we are bigger than the minorities who conduct these hate incidents.”

The council sits on the board of the Arizona Faith Network, with Rockower saying relationship networks are “the most important thing we have in our fight against hate.”

“It builds a stronger civil society, which makes all communities around us safer,” he said.

Arizona Interfaith Movement strives to reach the state’s younger generations

The Arizona Interfaith Movement, which has been around since the mid’90s, is perhaps best known for its “Live the Golden Rule” slogan that can be seen on specialized license plates around the state.

Executive Director the Rev. Larry Fultz said the Golden Rule is the basis for the organization’s work because it can be found in virtually every religion and sacred writing.

More than 20 faiths are represented in the organization, which Fultz said strives to “provide understanding where there is misunderstanding.”

It hosts an annual event in the spring, Experience Interfaith, which Fultz described as a “safe zone” where attendees can ask questions to members of each religion to better understand their faith. The dialogue occurs over a Langar dinner, a communal meal prepared and served by the organization’s Sikh members.

Fultz said before the pandemic prompted an end to large in-person gatherings, the event had “grown exponentially” each year and attracted between 500 and 700 people.

The event in 2021 featured 23 faith groups and was held virtually over three nights, and Fultz said he guessed there were about half as many people in attendance.

He said the strong participation over the years highlights the growing interest in interfaith movements, which he called “more important than ever.”

“It gives us an alternative to look at, an alternative that’s much better in terms of society’s sake than hate and instability,” he said. “It’s like pushing mud uphill, lots of times, helping people understand this hatred is not getting us anywhere. We need to have an understanding of one another and be able to communicate with each other civilly and respectfully.”

The organization also provides “multi- cultural, non-religious” Golden Rulebased curriculum to schools through a program called Arizona Golden Rule Educational Experiences, or AGREE. Materials are offered to schools at no cost, funded by the Golden Rule license plate fees.

Fultz hopes efforts like AGREE will help Arizona’s youngest generations grow up fostering inclusion, kindness and empathy, which he sees as the antidote to current divisions that have left the country “in a terrible place.”

“Unfortunately, we’ve learned this behavior from our parents, unfortunately sometimes from religious leaders, certainly politicians, we’ve learned this hatred,” he said. “If we can reach this new generation of children, we can develop a new way of dealing with our differences and displace them with civility and respect and dignity for the other person.”

Reach the reporter at bfrank@arizonarepublic.com or 602-444-8529. Follow her on Twitter @brieannafrank.

“If we don’t change our behavior, we do not change the way we react as a country, we’re in peril — deep peril. We’ve got to find an alternative way to deal with our anger and with our inability to communicate our differences of opinions.”

The Rev. Larry Fultz

Arizona Interfaith Movement

Arizona Faith Network members gather in front of the state Capitol in Phoenix.


Arizona Faith Network members participate in a Zoom meeting. The group was founded in 1946 as the Arizona Council of Churches.

PART OF THE USA TODAY NETWORK Copyright © 2021 The Arizona Republic 7/28/2021